FEAR AND FORGIVENESS
By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to VIRTUEONLINE
January 22, 2017
Blessed are they who fear the Lord and find delight in His commandments.
- Psalm 112:1
If You, Lord, should keep account of and treat us according to our sins,
O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You
[just what man needs], that You may be reverently feared and worshiped.
- Psalm 130:3-4 (Amplified Bible, Classic version, AMPC)
"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: be terrified of Him who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him!
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted.
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows."
- Luke 12:4-7
"Peace I leave with you: MY peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."
- John 14:27
Should We Fear God?
In multiple places in the Old Testament we hear that "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," (e.g., Eccles 1:14, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, 111:10), but we also hear in the New Testament that believers in Christ have His peace (the opposite of fear) and that we are to be "anxious for nothing" (Phil 4:6). What is the proper reconciliation of these two apparently opposing (paradoxical) biblical principles?
I share here four brief 19th century commentaries which are helpful to gain understanding regarding the mysterious fear--forgiveness connection which is found in Psalm 130:3-4:. "If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." (Psalm 130:3-4, ESV)
"One would think that punishment should procure fear, and forgiveness love; but no man more truly loves God than he that is most fearful to offend him. God is glorious in all his works, but most glorious in his works of mercy. Herein is God most glorious, in that forgives all the offenses of his children. 'Lord, who can know thee and not love thee, know thee and not fear thee? We fear thee for thy justice, and love thee for thy mercy; yea, fear thee for thy mercy, and love thee for thy justice; for thou art infinitely good in both.'" - Thomas Adams
"There is a common error in the world, to think we may be the bolder to sin because God is merciful; but, O my soul, take heed of this error, for God's mercy is to no such purpose; it is not to make us bold, but to make us fear: the greater his mercy is, the greater ought our fear to be, for there is mercy with him that he may be feared. Unless we fear, he may choose whether he will be merciful or no; or rather, we may be sure he will not be merciful, seeing He hath mercy for none but for them that humbly fear him; and there is great reason for this, for to whom should mercy show itself but to them that need it? And if we think we need it we will certainly fear. 'Oh, therefore, most gracious God, make me to fear thee; for as thou wilt not be merciful to me unless I fear thee, so I cannot fear thee unless thou first be merciful unto me.'" - Sir Richard Baker
"His judgments and his wrath may make us astonished and stupefied, but if there be no more than these, they will never make us to come to God. Then if this be not sufficient, what more is requisite? Even a sight of the Lord's mercy. What was the chief thing that moved the prodigal son to return home to his father? Was it chiefly the distress, the disgrace and poverty where with he was burdened, or the famine that almost caused him to starve? No, but the chief thing was this, he remembered that he had a loving father;this caused him to resolve with a humble confession to go home (Luke 15:1-32). Even so is it with the sinner; it is not terrors and threatenings that chiefly will move him to come to God, but the consideration of his manifold and great mercies." - Robert Rollock
"This forgiveness, this smile of God, binds the soul to God with a beautiful fear. Fear to lose one glance of [God's] love. Fear to lose one's work of kindness. Fear to be carried away from the heaven of his presence by an insidious current of worldliness. Fear of slumber. Fear of error. Fear of not enough pleasing him. Our duty, then, is to drink deep of God's forgiving love. To be filled with it is to be filled with purity, fervency, and faith. Our sins have to hide their diminished heads, and slink away through crevices, when forgiveness--when Christ--enters the soul." - George Bowen
These messages are helpful. The command to fear God may comprise the highest wisdom which is possible prior to the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This is so because a sinner's capacity to love or do good is always greatly compromised. Without a basic belief in accountability to a just and sovereign God (and the resulting fear of the divine consequences of justice), a sinner will not even try to obey God's laws. This is why we hear this command to fear God throughout the Old Testament. Old Testament saints needed fear because they did not yet have the benefits of the Christian Pentecost. So without the Holy Spirit within, self-protecting fear must be the primary motivator. It is better than nothing.
The fear of God, which is what God uses to initiate the faith-building process, is associated with conviction of sin (from our awareness of breaking God's laws) and is produced by the Holy Spirit. Such fear is completely appropriate when we believe the truth that we are sinners headed for hell!
The gracious purpose of this fear is to motivate repentance... leading to saving faith and to full trust in (and love for) Jesus Christ, which then, in turn, eliminates the fear.
The newfound faith and gratefulness work to produce that "peace of God which passes all understanding" which Paul wrote about in Philippians 4. As John Newton put it in the hymn "Amazing Grace": "T'was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved."
Our Spiritual Progression (if all goes right):
1. The precursor to the fear of God is belief. Why would people fear God unless they believed in His existence and righteousness? Because we are sinners and because God exists, we fear the condemnation we deserve at His divine and righteous hands. This is why the OT many times tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But it is not the end of wisdom... which is peace. But all real faith begins with fear.
2. The second consequence of belief is the conviction of our sin; since we know we cannot stand, our fear actually grows.
3. The third consequence of belief is that we know we must trust in God's mercy to avoid our deserved judgment. There is forgiveness available as a result of Christ's sacrifice for us. In our belief, we repent and receive forgiveness.
4. The fourth consequence of belief is that the essential element of fear disappears, and instead we have peace with God and with ourselves (being fully forgiven). Those who trust in Christ and have given their lives to Him need not fear anything or anyone.
5. The fifth consequence of belief is that we increasingly have an intimate relationship with God. We obey God, not out of fear any longer but out of love and gratefulness. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).
6. But we do continue to have some reasonable caution regarding our own vulnerability to temptation and the possibility of future sin. And when we do sin, we repent and return to Him for forgiveness. But now, in our newfound love for Him, we really don't want to sin. Our heart is right.
7. We have a sense of assurance that no one can pluck us from His hands (John 10: 27-30). The Lord is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) so that we now are safely sandwiched someplace between His authoring and His perfecting. He promises to finish the job. The one who has called us "is faithful and He will do it" (1 Thess: 5:23-24). And therefore, along with Paul, "I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him for that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12b).
To summarize, the fear of the Lord-- is only the beginning of our life in the Christian faith. Its value is to bring us to God in repentance. Once we are solidly among the Elect, we lose that fear due to our utter trust and love for Him. Now our 'fear of God' feelings are transformed into a heightened sense of awe and reverence. In fact, we are now commanded to be "anxious for nothing" (Phil 4:6). Worries and fears in the Christian believer are among the most useless things in the world.
Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with an M.A. in theology and a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia
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